Like all of you reading this, I too have found this time of crisis very challenging. It has impacted negatively on my sense of purpose as a priest with schools shut, hospitals on lockdown, quarantine, not being able to minister God’s mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation and celebrating Eucharist looking down on empty pews.
And yet, it hasn’t been all bad. This time of crisis is also one of opportunity when the Lord is leading us to be his priests and disciples in creative ways. Given the minimal opportunities for pastoral ministry, I sense that on this Good Friday, I am being called as a priest to put my full weight behind the prayers for the whole world that we make on this day and to pray along with our suffering Lord for all humanity.
Never before have I felt such an intense call as a priest to pray and intercede for the human family that is united in trial against this deadly virus, which respects no boundaries. As I pray and intercede for humanity, I am more conscious than ever that this prayer of intercession for the world is at the heart of priesthood – not just for ordained priests but for the whole priestly people of God. Led by our High Priest, who is Christ.
In the Bible, great figures from the Old Testament were raised up as leaders who interceded for the people before God. We think here of Moses and Aaron during the pilgrimage of Israel in the desert (cf. Numbers 14: 13-30). For the prophet Samuel, he considered prayer of intercession as one his primary duties and an offense against God should he fail to pray for the people: ‘far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you’ (1 Sam. 12:23).
Then, in the Gospels, Jesus continues this priestly role of interceding before God for the people he loved. We see this mediator role most clearly in John’s Gospel chapter 17 with his magnificent priestly prayer at the Last Supper. This of course was followed on Good Friday by his greatest prayer of intercession, offered with his whole mind, body and spirit, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34), a plea for his persecutors, yes, and for every one of us.
In these days in the Office of Readings, we read from the letter to the Hebrews. There we learn more about Jesus’ role as a priestly intercessor for humanity. The letter insists that Jesus’ priesthood was in continuity with other intercessors before him, praying to God for his brothers and sisters. But his uniqueness consists in being not just the Son of Man but also the Son of God - the unique priestly bridge between God and humanity, the person where humanity and divinity come together and are reconciled.
In Hebrews, Jesus’ priesthood revolves on two hinges. First, his solidarity with humanity and compassion for human weakness. Jesus’ priesthood began at his incarnation when he became one with us in all things bar sin. He knows our condition from the inside-out including the human reality of illness. Jesus cured and healed many people who were ill and we can reasonably presume that he knew what it was like to be ill himself.
Therefore, in the midst of this crisis, when hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings are ill, we can pray to (and with) our God who knows and weeps for those who are sick. ‘For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us…let us be confident then in approaching the throne of grace that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help’ (Heb. 4:15-16).
Jesus has gone before us on this path of intercession by offering himself as priest, victim and sacrifice. Sharing his priesthood means opening up our personal lives, social lives and indeed the life of the world to the transforming power of his divine love. We offer our prayers for humanity, with Jesus, to the Father but we receive back from God the purifying and renewing power of the Spirit that restores a sick world to health.
Through Christ our priest, we receive back new hope and are ‘filled with faith, our minds free from any trace of bad conscience’ and as we are ‘stirred to a response in love and good works’ (Heb. 10:25).
We are most familiar with this communal exercise of our share in Christ’s priesthood during the Mass. After the creed, the community presents the bidding prayers to God the Father which are also known as the prayers of the faithful or ‘universal prayers’. These prayers are universal in their scope as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains: ‘In the Universal prayer of prayer of the faithful, the people respond in some sense to the Word of God which they have received in faith and, exercising the office of their baptismal priesthood, offer prayers to God for the salvation of all’ (GIRM 69; cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2). On Good Friday, there are ten prayers we solemnly make to God that embrace the needs of the Church and whole world.
As it is not possible to gather this Good Friday and while our gatherings for Mass are suspended, each of us must take greater responsibility for this universal scope of our prayer as priests, both baptized and ordained. As I pray for humankind in this world crisis of the coronavirus, I realize that this can only be possible thanks to our share in Jesus’ priesthood and the two dimensions of solidarity and blessing outlined above.
First, our priestly compassion and prayer for others. With Jesus our brother we offer our prayers for the suffering, the ill, the infected and the dead, born of an empathy we feel in our gut for all those who are afflicted most. We think of those in emergency units and intensive care facilities gasping for air and struggling to breath. We think of their families who can’t see them, hold their hand or even attend their funeral. We think of our health care workers, medical staff, military, chaplains and volunteers who are putting themselves at risk to try and contain the virus and care for the sick. These are the people we lift up to God, praying for the human family.
And then there is the flow of grace in the other direction. As we pray, we wait upon the Lord to discern his will and our role in a proper response to the crisis. When we as a priestly people unite ourselves with the action of Christ’s offering, it releases a dynamic of love which spreads throughout the world and progressively transforms it. And this day, this Good Friday, is the great catalyst for all of that.
Friends, in the words of Scripture, ‘Jesus has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father’ (Rev. 1:5-6). Thanks to Jesus our high priest, together in him ‘we make up together the house of God’ (3:6).
This time of unprecedented crisis has brought me back to one of the most fundamental privileges of priesthood: praying for the world.
Though we cannot gather, may we all unite our spiritual sacrifices by praying for all humanity at this great time of need, and on this day of great sorrow and greater grace. And may we be transformed as a Church and as a world to resemble more the one God intends.